Leftovers: Baba Ghanouj

Long Beach’s newest Lebanese restaurant for the District:


Baba Ghanouj is brushed with the kind of rustic, earthen patina that colors all of Long Beach’s Lebanese restaurants, a brassy sheen that instantly cultivates an antique atmosphere. It’s a calculated design decision that not only lays out the restaurant’s commitment to the usual Lebanese tropes, but also makes the place already feel like a years-old fixture. This maturity is crucial because Baba Ghanouj is but a months-old newcomer, a Bixby Knolls restaurant far away from the Second Street stalwarts that control so much of the local Lebanese cooking.

Alone as it is in uptown’s so-called Little Italy, Baba Ghanouj doesn’t have to deal with the constant competition that drives spots like Open Sesame and Sunnin. But because of that relatively frictionless existence, the restaurant, which took over the Atlantic Avenue space vacated by Four Olives, can be comfortable in its classicism—Baba Ghanouj doesn’t deliver any surprises, but it nevertheless charts a steady, pleasant course.

All the usual trappings are here: frosty bottles of Almaza beer, creamy mounds of hummus, baskets loaded with pliable pieces of pita. On name alone, however, the requisite order would seem to be baba ghanouj, the pasty dip of diced grilled eggplant, garlic, lemon, olive oil and tahini. The restaurant’s rendition is good (despite the overly smoky tahini), but a smarter starter is karnabeet, a plate of fried cauliflower that better absorbs the tahini’s occasionally overwhelming flavor.

Baba Ghanouj is an admirable lunch destination, offering daily specials that pull from some of the more neglected corners of Lebanese cuisine. On Tuesdays, there’s eggplant stuffed with lamb and pine nuts in a light tomato sauce. On Wednesdays, there’s bami, a baby okra, cilantro, garlic and lamb stew. Even if you don’t opt for a special, there are a number of exceedingly worthy sandwiches—thin-skinned pita pockets stuffed with shawarma, falafel, kebabs and the like.

Dinner brings forth Baba Ghanouj’s full-fledged plates. Loaded as they are with rice, hummus and even more pita, the dinner dishes don’t leave room for much else. But you shouldn’t be searching for anything extra—the restaurant’s evening meals are plenty good.

Most are built upon the foundation laid by lunch, promoting standard sandwich fillers like the finely spiced chicken shawarma and tender beef kebabs to their own well-earned spotlights. The dishes don’t suffer, either—most of the items that spent their lunch packed into a piece of pita are better showcased at dinner, where they’re offered in truer, purer states.

Kefta, for example, is a top option, torpedo-like logs of ground lamb and beef hit heavily with onions and parsley. The minced meat’s subtleties are muddled in a sandwich, but presented on its own the kefta is excellent. Falafel, strangely enough, works in reverse—the famous fried balls are at their best in Baba Ghanouj’s sandwich. But the restaurant is ready for that, as all of the sandwich’s accoutrements (tomato, parsley, mint, radish, pickled turnips and tahini) are served as a salad of sorts at dinner that can easily be reworked into a hand-held construction.

Dessert is defined primarily by baklava, bite-sized sections of phyllo dough studded with chopped walnuts and pistachios and glazed with a sweet syrup. (There’s also namoura, a similarly flavored semolina cake.) That Baba Ghanouj caps its meals with a slice of baklava isn’t unexpected—the dessert is a Mediterranean staple that makes its way onto most every menu. But that the restaurant sticks to the standards is important—Baba Ghanouj is breaking new ground in Bixby Knolls, not rewriting the entire Lebanese cookbook.



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